The combination of deteriorating living conditions for the spectators camping out on the fringes of the track grounds, the anticipated loss of most of the speedway's volunteer work force and the opportunity to have the race broadcast live on network television precipitated the unusual move, but it was a controversial one just the same.
For the fans who had traveled thousands of miles to see the race and had vowed to wait as long as necessary to fulfill their dream, the decision was especially devastating. Despite a pelting, drenching rain almost all day yesterday, hundreds of them appeared at the speedway - and a few even took their assigned seats in the exposed grandstands - to resume the vigil.
And while the stalwarts were waiting for a break in the clouds, race officials were trying to untangle a snarl involving the interests of the patrons, the workers and ABC-TV.
At the height of the confusion late yesterday afternoon, the speedway management announced that it would give only 12 hours notice before staging the race, although at the time officials were already lining up volunteers for Saturday and negotiating a new broadcast agreement with ABC. (The network earlier announced that it would not televise the race if it was postponed beyond yesterday. However, after the decision to go Saturday, network officials said plans to televise the race had been reinstated.)
Even before all of the machinations, the heavy, drenching rain that swamped the track yesterday morning sent many in the initial crowd of 400,000 heading disconsolately for airports and highways, their $80 water-stained tickets suddenly as worthless as the discarded coffee cups and beer cans that clogged the landscape.
The eerie quiet of the speedway reinforced the worries of race officials that the traditional overflow crowd would be gone by the time the weather broke, leaving an embarrassingly small gathering to herald the most important racing event of the year. The track management has even talked about opening the gates and allowing spectators in free when the race is run Saturday, beginning at noon Philadelphia time.
And as the days were passing and the rain continuing, the public-health dangers were also growing for those spectators who had camped in the bog on the outskirts of the speedway grounds.
Besides the puddles of mud - in spots more than a foot deep - that surround the track, clumps of debris and rotting food have sprouted up throughout the area, and the rain has rendered clean-up efforts futile.
"We have concerns about having the place as nice as possible for the public," chief steward Tom Binford conceded. "Under these conditions, it's very difficult."
Further complicating the situation was the growing prospect of a track tragedy, a notion fortified by the memory of the only other comparable postponement situation at Indy, a 1973 disaster in which two drivers were killed and a third seriously injured in separate mishaps during a soggy month at the speedway. The race itself was called off twice that year and ultimately
cut short because of the weather, and there are those who believe it should never have been run.
Art Pollard lost his life in a crash during one of the practices on the damp track, and Salt Walther incurred severe burns and several other drivers were injured in a spectacular 10-car crash during one of two aborted starts. Then Swede Savage suffered fatal injuries in a crash on the 59th lap of the race.
Even now, 13 years later, the decision to start that race before the fourth turn of the sloped track was entirely dry is a matter of debate among racing zealots, and a matter of worry among the drivers.
"I can still remember all those crashes," said driver Michael Andretti, who was 10 then and at Indianapolis to watch father Mario compete. "It seemed like they were in a hurry to get the race over with."
This time apparently there is no hurry. Rather than try to hold a race with few volunteer workers, a sparse crowd and no live television, the speedway management decided to take the safest route.
But even after the move, there was cause for some confusion. Last night, for the first time in several days, the sky over Indianapolis began to clear.
And the Saturday weather forecast had a familiarly ominous ring to it: chance of showers.